IMPERIAL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
A Desert Oasis of Wetlands, Wildlife and Winged Wonders
By Lisa D. Smith
Nestled in the southwest corner of Arizona, encompassing vast stretches of desert, along with the lower Colorado River and natural areas such as the Imperial, Kofa, and Cibola National Wildlife Refuges, Yuma County is a popular birding, nature and outdoor adventure destination. Birders flock to this southwestern biodiverse hotspot year-round (especially through winter and spring) to view the over 400 bird species that call this region their permanent nesting grounds or temporary home during seasonal migration.
A scenic desert drive (approx. 90-120 minutes) heading north of Yuma on Highway 95, the 26,000 acre Imperial National Wildlife Refuge sits adjacent to Lake Martinez. Established in 1941, refuge protects a 30 mile stretch of the lower Colorado River, as well as 15,000 acres of designated wilderness area. Located within the northern range of the Sonoran desert, the refuge encompasses upland desert habitat, marshes, and Colorado River backwaters. The river waterways and wetland habitats create a vibrant green oasis, beautifully surrounded by rugged desert mountains.
From marsh birds to waterfowl and even wintering bald eagles and the endangered Yuma clapper rail, the Imperial NWR wetland areas are important resting, feeding, and nesting habitats for a variety of migratory birds and wildlife species, including desert big horn sheep, mule deer, black-tailed jack rabbits and muskrat. Plantlife ranges from sago pondweed to common cattail, ironwood to catclaw and smoke trees, as well as creosote bush, palo verde, and ocotillo.
Refuge activities include bird and wildlife watching and photography, fishing and boating, hiking, kayaking and canoeing. The Refuge Headquarters and Visitor Center has a birding observatory deck and desert pupfish pond, and also offers maps, brochures and checklists. The visitor center is staffed by volunteers and the hours vary by season. Please call in advance at (928) 783-3371, especially during summer hours, and visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Imperial/.